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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

You Are Delivering A Service, Not Just An App

8:07 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , 2 comments
[Mobile] Apps are the talk of the town. A whole ecosystem, including developers, consultants and digital marketers, is currently thriving on the app economy. Almost all [technology] news sites are full of discussions around them. Startup events are all about apps as well. All of this might be well worth it and I can understand the hype around apps, but I am unable to comprehend the focus around them - especially when it comes to new tech ventures. A lot of times when I hear and read about mobile apps, I get the impression that the person I am reading or hearing to thinks of this "mobile world" as different from the web and of mobile apps as different from the web apps. Unsurprisingly, most of these people are journalists, consultants, researchers, marketers and "business idea" guys.

Yes, the mobile phones have finally become smart and the dream of mobile computing has finally come true. But these mobile devices are just a part of the equation. These are just another portal, similar to a desktop computer, to the information and content that lies on the web. And we will have more such portals in near future, such as smart televisions and smart in-car devices. People who understand technology, understand that the real work happens behind the scenes - in the network. The network has become the computer now, and all these smart devices just its front-end. 

This is why when I notice people talking on blogs and networking events about starting ventures around [mobile] apps (unless they are talking about things that are only meant for a smartphone or a tablet, e.g. games), I understand that they do not really know how this thing works. I think these people fail to realize that they should focus on developing and delivering a service - not just an app - that can be accessed anytime and anywhere. Thanks to the "magic" of distributed computing, webservices and a good architecture, people do not need to worry [much] about making applications that are specific to mobile devices or desktops. They can decouple the front-end from back-end, as is shown in the image below (note - this is just an example of a high level logical view of an application; there are obviously many possible ways to design an app or a service). This separation also helps with focusing on the right elements. For example, while on the backend side functionality, performance and scalability are the key aspects to consider, on the frontend side user experience and journey take top spot.

This concept of multi-tiered application design does not just make sense from a technical perspective, but also from a business perspective. It is important, in terms of technology, to decouple software modules and develop a multi-tiered architecture in order to make the application robust and scalable. Similarly, in terms of business, it is important to go for modular design in order to prepare for business growth, expansion into multiple channels and even improving end-user experience.

Having said all the above, I understand that you need to start somewhere and you need to start lean. So yes, may be you should start with just desktop or just mobile or may be go further and be more platform specific to, say, iPhone. But even then you should design your application in a way that extending it to Android or iPad or desktop or some other platform in future just requires adding or modifying a module. The owners/developers of these applications should understand that what they are delivering to the end users are a service, not just an app. And that the basic parameters that make a service useful and successful do not change for apps, irrespective of the platform they are running on.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Product Focus

7:24 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
One of the top news of the technology world doing rounds nowadays is Google's consolidation of its product portfolio. This consolidation is the brain child of its new CEO, Larry Page, who apparently got this advice from Steve Jobs himself. Jobs was the master of consolidation. While his competitors used to release a plethora of products in the market, Jobs used to work on just a handful. For example, while the existing leaders of the mobile phone market had dozens of models in the market, Apple put its weight behind just one, which eventually ended up changing the dynamics of the industry. 

This brings us to the key advantage of consolidation and the reason that Google is killing all these projects - focus. While one can argue that by working on all these projects Google was putting its eggs on multiple baskets and investing in future, the increased threat from the much more focused competitors, such as Apple and Facebook, required the search giant to pick its battles carefully. 

In the software world, the problem that comes up due to lack of focus is bloatedness. Almost all of the old guards of technology, such as IBM, HP, Oracle, SAP, and Microsoft, suffer from this problem - be it product portfolio or product features. It does not take a business degree for someone to understand that by consolidating the product portfolio, a company will have more resources (time, people and money) in hand to work on lesser projects. This will affect the product in every way, from product development to marketing. I think the reason companies such as the ones mentioned above become so bloated is that it is the easy thing to do. Just keep adding features to your product and keep upgrading the versions. I am not against adding features to products or increasing the product portfolio, as long as that does not come in the way of user experience, if not improve it. 

The best examples of bloatedness can be found in the enterprise software market. The truth about such products and packages is that their customers buy them not because they want to, but because they either already have a lot of investment in the older versions or there is a lack of other players with proven track record. The cost of moving on to another vendor is high. However, the consumer market is a different ballgame altogether. Consumers do not have much, if any, baggage to carry, and do not hesitate in switching vendors. This is why in the consumer market - unlike the enterprise software market - the current install base or past achievements do not matter. You might be the dominant market player in one year, and scrambling to save your declining market share the next. A better product, even from a small company, with the help of good marketing can easily prove to be a threat to an existing leader. This makes innovation very important in consumer market, and innovation demands focus. It is much harder to try to innovate on ten things than it is to on one or two. Hence the portfolio consolidation and the focused approach to product and portfolio. All current technology pioneers - Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Salesforce, Twitter and Google - either already practice this focused approach or are trying to get there. 

It is this product focus that plays in the favor of startups as well. As companies grow, they become victims of their own success. Their big size and huge budgets actually start working against them. It sounds like one of those karate lessons of using your enemies strength against them, but if you look at the technology industry, it is very true. Their big sizes do not allow them to focus on niches. Microsoft might have a huge collaboration software division with hundreds, if not thousands, of people working on the next release of their heavy duty collaboration software suite. But a small startup (such as Box.net or Dropbox) with a focused offering can still carve its own niche and be successful. In fact, startups have been playing this 'focus' card now for almost as long in the past as one can recall. 

Focus is important but also very hard to practice. A focused approach towards product development can prove to be a matter of life and death for a startup, and lack of one can lead to downfall of a market leader. Looking at Google's management restructuring and rearrangement of product portfolio, it seems that Google has finally got this message. And looking at Google's past, I am certain that they are also very capable of executing this focused approach much better than a lot of other companies.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

London Startup Events And Their Problems

11:39 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments

London is already the financial capital of Europe, and now the current government is pushing for it to become the technology capital of the continent as well. In fact, some of the journalists are already talking about London increasingly becoming a threat to Silicon Valley, but I think we are still very far from there. 

While the Silicon Roundabout is no Silicon Valley it is definitely ahead of many other places. And this is evident in the effort that the government is putting in making East London the tech city, the various startups that have been created here, the various incubators that have sprung up and the numerous tech networking events that are held here every week. 

I have attended a few of these startups events till now, and must say that though London is no Silicon Valley the spirit of entrepreneurship here is really commendable. You can feel the enthusiasm and the hunger to do something in people who attend these events. Having said that, there are some problems as well because of which, in my view, these events are not able to cover that last mile in promoting the London startup ecosystem - 

  • Few developers, mostly business and marketing guys - One of the key problems that I, and many others that I have talked to, have noticed is that these events are mostly full of business and marketing guys and do not have many developers. So while these events are good for meeting other people and finding out what others are working on, if you are looking for a techie that you can employ or partner with to start your own thing, good luck with that. In fact, I have yet to come across an event where the techies outnumber business guys.
  • Focus on apps, not creating a business around it - Probably the most disappointing and common thing that I have found in startup pitches in these events is that a lot of them are just about apps, and not really about products and businesses. While I have seen some good products and good potential businesses in these pitches, a lot of people have developed something just to put it out there. I have met a lot of "entrepreneurs" who have created apps and started calling their venture a startup, while it is no more than just another software application. Not that I am against or do not believe in serendipitous entrepreneurship, but I am sure you will understand if I become skeptical when a lot of people start trying out their luck. That is how - at the risk of being topical - bubbles form. 
  • Too much networking - Networking is good, I agree. But I also believe that there is something called too much networking or unnecessary networking. There are so many networking events for tech entrepreneurs every week here in London that attending them can pretty much become a part-time job. This makes it imperative that people choose the events they need to attend wisely. I have even met people here that attend these networking sessions so much that they have almost formed a group and discuss the next networking event they are going to attend in almost every event that they do. Some people might find that okay, but if I have to choose between creating a better product and over-networking, I will chose the former. 

Problems aside, meeting people, visiting events and sitting through pitches, I have become a big believer in London and in the fact that will become, if it has not already, one of the greatest centers of entrepreneurship in the world. It has all the resources to make that happen: top financial institutions, some of the best educational institutions, top multinational companies, government support, patrons of art and culture in addition to finance and technology, and a multi-cultural and multi-national population. I guess now it is just about walking that last mile.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Web Of Knowledge

7:26 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
Curiosity is one of the most basic characteristics of human beings. It drives our thirst for knowledge and desire to learn. Earlier, we used to satisfy this desire through TV programs, radio, books, newspapers, magazines and talking to other people that we come in contact with. Now, the World Wide Web has completely transformed the way we learn about things. 

The web has become the single largest source of information in the world. And with the advent of new smartphones and tablets, anyone can tap into this massive source of information anytime and anywhere. The web is full of open and free sources of information. Open not-for-profit projects such as Wikipedia and KhanAcademy enable people to learn about new things free of cost. Many commercial, though free, sources also provide interesting information - YouTube has many informative videos and Quora is full of interesting questions and answers on large number of topics. In addition to that there are many interesting (and unknown) blogs and university open research and lecture programs (such as the ones from Stanford and MIT) available on the internet that most of the people are not aware of. Along with these usual sources of information and knowledge, we also learn a lot from the people around us. The web has spread its magic here as well. While earlier we could only learn from people that we used to come in direct contact with, now we can connect and learn from people almost anywhere in the world. The social networks have helped in putting together the framework for connecting people with similar interests. 

While this ocean of open and free information is a gift, it has a big problem as well - it is so vast that you can easily get lost in it and miss out on a lot of good though [relatively] unknown sources. There is so much information out there that people generally only refer to a handful of sources. Google has been very helpful in getting the [relatively] unknown sources of information to us, but it still has not been able to solve this problem. People still only refer to the few sources of information that they are use to. This situation highlights a key point that search alone is not the answer to this problem of vastness of information on the web, it has to be complimented with information assimilation and representation as well. 

This problem of vastness has a corollary, in that while there are many good and free sources of information available, these are generally good at only one aspect. For example, Wikipedia is good at information on almost every topic but it is just text, lots of it. KhanAcademy is full of good videos but only the academic types, and while YouTube has many good videos those are general purpose and a bit difficult to find amongst the pile of many irrelevant videos. Quora is another good source of information, but it is only in form of Q&A and does not provide much in-depth information on many topics. And while Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are good social networking tools they are general purpose and are not too helpful for learning and educational purposes. So while we have the right ingredients with us to improve the learning experience, we do not have the right framework that can use these different sources and provide a coherent learning experience. 

Technology has given us the tools that we can use to improve our learning experience. It has now matured enough to enable seamless exchange of knowledge, while providing great user experience. Our education system can leverage these technologies in cultivating the curiosity in students and giving them the right framework to quench their thirst for knowledge. 

Learning can be improved by engaging people, and technology can help us in increasing that level of engagement. The more a person gets involved while learning a topic, the more he or she will understand it. It comes down to using your [five] senses. The more senses you use while learning something the more entertaining and engaging the experience becomes. This is why effective learning has to be a process of both give and take. You take interesting information in by using a combination of text, sounds, images and videos, and you give by writing (blogs and comments) and talking (discussions) about it. You give by providing answers and you take by asking questions. A good learning platform will be able to harness this understanding of human nature, in creating improved and engaging learning experience, and the power of technology, in aggregating information and connecting people.

Monday, November 07, 2011

From Education To Learning

11:30 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
We had an economics teacher in 8th or 9th standard (not too sure about the class). In every economics period, she used to dictate questions and their answers to us as soon as she use to enter the class, throughout the duration of that period. She use to do this religiously. No discussions, no exchanging of ideas, just dictation. This was her way to prepare us for the exams. I do not remember how much I scored in economics, but I do remember this - because of her teaching style, I started to hate economics. I hated the subject till I grew up and started taking interest in the world around me, on my own. Then during the MBA I just fell in love with economics. We had amazing professors who used various media to teach us the wonders of micro and macro economics, and their relevance in our lives. 

It is ironic, but since the time I have completed my MBA, I have started to question our whole education system. Okay, my economics teacher might be a bit of an extreme and uncommon example, but the underlying problems in the education system stay the same, and even global. These problems - such as emphasis on passing exams and getting higher grades, focus on teaching instead of making students interested in learning, a standard curriculum for all students instead of customized courses based on each student's ability and interests, and focus on hard skills - plague our education system almost on a global level.

Think of the people who have changed this world. Do you think it was their college degrees that helped them accomplish their goals? At least, PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor, Peter Thiel does not think so, that is why he started the controversial "20 under 20" initiative. I agree with Peter that you learn much more in the real world than you do in the confines of a classroom.

One of the biggest problems that I find in the current education system is its emphasis towards teaching and not learning, its focus towards the institution not the student, and its closed nature instead of open. In fact, I think the problem here is that the focus is on education, instead of learning. While education is a system driven by society, learning is part of the basic human nature driven by curiosity and desire. While education is institutional, learning is individual. While education is something that is imposed on you, learning is something that you want to do. I am not sure about you but the moment I hear the word education the first images that come to my mind are benches, classrooms, teachers, periods, report cards and assignments. The feeling is much simpler, when I think of learning. 

Learning can be done anywhere and anytime, and has two key constituents: content and media. In our fast moving world, content is generated every passing minute of every hour of every day of every year. Once it is generated, this content can reach people all over the world through various media - books, television, internet, radio, friends, parents, relatives, etc. You can learn while playing games, talking to people, listening to radio, watching TV. Basically anytime you interact with anything in this world (or even outside it) is an opportunity for learning. It is one of the basic human characteristics, and cuts across all demographics, just like music.  

I think while our education system was established with the noblest of motives, we have lost it on our way to this point. The education system has turned into a breeding ground for preparing us to join a life-long rat race. I understand that this problem cannot be solved quickly, but many people and organizations are trying to do their part. There is an ongoing movement to emphasize on the importance of learning. It also helps to know that transformation of education is not just a charitable cause, but a profitable one too. Many entrepreneurs are leveraging the transformational capability of technology in order to change the education system - with more emphasis towards the individual, rather than the institution. I think one of the most interesting and pragmatic motivation in exercising your entrepreneurial aspirations in this field is the fact that there is no dominant player in education. Unlike music or movies or mobile phones, there is no monopoly or oligopoly here. 
Changes in our education system are now long overdue. There is a need and, thanks to the advancements in technology, potential to replace the institution with the individual at the centre of education

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Platforms And The "Other" User Group

10:54 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
One of the key reasons for success of many landmark technology products has been their transition from product to a platform. This is probably one of the worst kept secrets and one of the best understood business lessons in the world of technology. The greatest thing about being a platform is that, besides you, other people also invest their time and money in your product, as their interest gets aligned with yours. Some of the most famous and successful platforms are Microsoft Windows, eBay, iPod, iPhone, iPad, Facebook, and Twitter. But what is a platform and how is it different than a product? The relationship between these two can be explained best by sets. While a product (a subset) provides a utility and solves a problem, a platform (a superset) is a product on top of which other products and services are also developed. 

So when do you know that a product has become a platform? When an ecosystem starts to thrive around it. No product is a platform from day one. I believe there are two key requirements for a product to be a platform. The first and the most important is obviously that it has to be a good product to begin with that solves an actual user problem. And the second is that the product should extend its features/services and make it easy for other products and services to utilize them. The first requirement is pretty obvious. The second one, in the world of technology, maps to managing the developer community and to extending product capabilities and features via interfaces that these developers can use. All of the successful technology platforms mentioned above, and many more, extend their products using interfaces that other companies and developers all over the world use for their own offerings. 

Developers are like the "other" users of a product. While, companies need to focus on customers for building products, they need to focus on developers as well for building platforms. This obviously eats into resources of a company, and is probably the reason why it is particularly hard for startups to establish their products as platforms as they are always running low on resources. 

Types of Platforms 
There are many technology platforms out there, and these can be broadly divided into two main camps. The first allows development partners to showcase their offerings to the consumers, and the second allows them to leverage that platform for creating applications that can be used by the enterprises. The iPhone is a great example of a platform that is used by many developers all over the world to reach out to millions of consumers. Twitter, on the other hand, comes in the second category and is used by the developers for mining its firehouse for information that is useful for the enterprises. Facebook is unique in this case, as it allows both, developers to reach out to the users and also to mine the data useful for enterprises. 

Developer Community - Key For Any Platform 
No matter which type of platform a company wants to create. As long as it wants to create one, it will have to put in the effort for managing the developer community, in addition to managing the user community. There are three key elements that technology companies use for doing so - 

  • Application Programming Interface (APIs) - Good API is key for a successful platform. Developers will be using your API to leverage your product capabilities, so when you are thinking about good user experience for your product, you need to consider this "other" set of users as well. A well designed product will not just have good and comprehensive user interface, but also a neat set of APIs. Complex and difficult-to-work-with APIs will just discourage developers from using them. There is a lot of useful information available on the internet that can guide you for creating a good set of API. Apigee particularly has good library of API best practices.
  • Documentation - If developers are your users, then your product code and architecture documentation is like their user guide. And just like a good product has a good, tidy and comprehensive user guide, a good technology platform also requires good, tidy and comprehensive developer documentation. 
  • Social Networking - Just like successful products engage with their users, interact with them and provide the platform for them to interact with each other, good technology platforms also engage their developer community and provide the platform for them to interact with each other. Events, blogs, discussions forums, tweets and networking sites are some of the ways that technology companies leverage social networking for their platforms. There are many tools and services available on the net that can be used to create a good developer community

Creating a good product is definitely not an easy job, let alone creating a good platform. However, following good developer and architecture conventions and standards from the beginning can help you transform your product into a platform much easily when the time comes. In case this is not considered upfront, doing it later can prove to be a tough job. Developers and consumers are like two faces of the same coin as far as a platform is concerned. Technology companies cannot afford to ignore anyone of these users.